Long Winded Modest Mouse Show Preview
While The Moon & Antarctica is widely considered Modest Mouse‘s crowning achievement, there are some, like myself who consider The Lonesome Crowded West a near perfect album. Dropped in 1997, it didn’t make its way into my regular rotation until a year or so after. But, I was a fickle college music fan, gravitating to various bands and styles, then moving onto the next. Still, upon graduation in 2002, I packed my old Honda Accord with one of those traveling cases of CDs, a few packs of smokes and my sleeping bag…and I drove from Austin to my new home, Yellowstone National Park. It was that first 24 hour road trip that really made me indebted to that LP, so much so, that now, some 20 years on from that adventure, I can still recall every twist and turn of the songs, and every little nuanced moment where Modest Mouse made it into my life in those months. I’m fortunate to be able to catch the band touring behind the entirety of said LP here in Austin on Monday; tickets are SOLD OUT, so perhaps ask a friend..
The following is mostly likely self-flagellating and meaningless recollections piled atop personal thoughts on the record and its songs.
Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine – Pulling out of the driveway, I knew I needed a record with some length to it; my pop-punk collection would likely just burn itself out, so I needed something with energy and power, but also an album that would stretch over an hour. I pulled out a Camel Light and slide The Lonesome Crowded West into Rhonda the Honda (sorry for my teenage lack of originality!).
This tune’s perfect for a kicking off a road trip; it opens with these stuttering twangs, ringing then bursting to life as Isaac emphatically belts out his lines. A brief five second respite at 24 seconds, then it punches you right in the face again. At this point, if feels like you’re zooming down the highway at top speed, windows down and hair blowing behind you. Suddenly, you hit traffic at 1:22 and the song slows to a drag. But it’s here where I think I connected to the lyrics the most: “Go to the grocery store, buy some new friends/And find out the beginning, the end, and the best of it/Well, do you need a lot of what you’ve got to survive.” Honestly, probably about 5 minutes into my move to Yellowstone, I don’t think I knew the answer. I wasn’t sure I had enough of what I needed to survive; I’d been surrounded by friends for years, and now, it was just me, the woods and some bears. That thought was immediately followed by the acknowledgment that I hadn’t ever had an Orange Julius (still haven’t!). Still, the song hits it low-point then explodes, giving me the strength to know I could/would survive. So long. Farewell. Goodbye. Then as the song erupts, I pushed down on the pedal and continued driving North.
Heart Cooks Brain – Listening to this tune again, years down the road, it definitely feels like this is the track that started the contemplative journey of my move to Yellowstone. I mean, the windows are likely down, and we hit the lyric “On the way to God don’t know.” I mean, if ever there was an emphatic declaration of finding yourself in indie rock, this likely is it (well, this and about 10 million other sweet jams). Still, there’s all sort of imagery tied to Yellowstone, for me at least. From “cliffs” to “buffalo” to “days go so slow.” Interestingly, I often think of this tune (and various Built to Spill tracks) as what defined the late 90s Pacific Northwest sound, which definitely has this unexpected connection to where I was going to live for the next several months. Even now, this song makes me nostalgic for that step, dropping everything behind me and just venturing off to “God don’t know or even care.”
Convenient Parking – This song still feels like a cleanser of sorts. We’ve moved from a light lull with a bit of reflection…likely me acknowledging that I’ll miss my friends and family more than I expected…into this rugged mantra that sort of feels like speeding down the highway. The guitars have this natural spring to them, with the drums pounding furiously, all of it leading to this huge eruption in Brock’s chorus. There’s something about the recording of the vocals too; it feels like you’re in a crowded house party and everyone’s talking over one another, though you can clearly hear the person in front of you, albeit with an additional hum.
Lyrically, even now, I have absolutely no idea what the hell this song is about. Maybe it’s a call to action, informing us that whatever we’re doing, we should feel guilty if we’re not out to make some sort of chain reaction that affects the world. I think this bright-eyed graduate definitely was in search of that, or at least hoping to find that place where I could matter.
Lounge (Closing Time) – Now, in all likelihood, I was somewhere along I-35 between Austin and Waco, but in my brain, this song feels very much like I was cutting back through Oklahoma on my journey. You see, I spent my last few years of college between a thrift store, school, a bar and a pizza restaurant that was evenly split between hippies and punks. This song is the middle ground of that restaurant. The jittering guitar lines definitely make you want to boogie, like some sort of bastardized bluegrass. Still, the Brock delivery in the song’s first half has this rugged bravado to it, matching up with some of the flare and attitude you got in that period of punk.
Personally, I love the huge bit of rising action. The guitar builds and it just feels like you’re climbing this mountain, the guitars churning. Then the drums roll, pushing your faster and faster towards the top. Drums and guitars stomp as you near the peak, then the song beautifully draws a breath; it’s a moment of respite. Maybe on a road trip its that quick bathroom break on the side of the road; you slowly descend to the next step on your journey, and in the case of the tune, the next track.
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child – Here you have the one possible throwaway tune, for me, at least musically speaking. Stretched fiddles and the vocal sampling is a unique musical touch at this time, but it didn’t offer me that much. Lyrically, it’s supremely fitting to the revisiting of this record. Just admitting to myself that “I didn’t know then, what I know now” is somewhat freeing. I had no idea what I was doing, and likely wouldn’t for the next 5 years. Musically its meh, but lyrically, I’m here for it.
Doin’ the Cockroach – This song is my quintessential Modest Mouse jam. Burning guitar notes that seem to pick up steam as Isaac takes it upon himself to howl like a train whistle. Suddenly, the song slides into gear and you’re racing down the road; it seems at points like you’ve got things under control, you’re just a few miles above the speed limit, cruising as I was, through the flat Oklahoma landscape, then out of nowhere things get hectic. The cymbal work just goes nuts and the song begins to freak out with sputtering guitar notes and crashing hi-hat. I can feel myself in Rhonda the Honda, getting antsy, looking for a detour on my road trip, so I take that quick right along Highway 51 and head to find my fellow Cowboys.
Cowboy Dan – Tying my current listening experience to my recollections of my road trip to Wyoming certainly is unearthing some of my own manic decision making, along with that of the band. We start with a Western boogie of sorts, like a campfire song; it feels like you’re marching forward with your life…well, that and tying it to some questionable life decisions circled around drinking habits, which I can definitely attest to at that point in my young adulthood. But, just as easily as you felt the song careening into darkness, the sun rises.
When the vocals reemerge at 2:18, it’s one of the most striking moments on the LP; it feels like the line “we need oxygen to breathe” is a reminder to us all that even on great journeys, amidst great moments, we should all take moments to just be. This middling section of the tune allowed me, and allows me, to just breathe, to just sit inside the song. Then it rolls on and you’ve got to take on that fighting spirit and push on, put the road and the past behind you.
Trailer Trash – At some point, I realized with a brief few hours spent visiting friends in Oklahoma that I indeed had to put that behind me. That chapter was closing, although not permanently. Here, on the song’s second half, I find myself feeling the promise of this adventure, both mentally and musically. Guitar lines that feel like they’re being strummed out until their out of tune, backed by the sharp percussive punctuation, all of it with this sublime melody and lyrics that sum up four years of learning and debauchery with a simple couplet of “I know that I miss you/I’m sorry if I dissed you.” Every college mistake and every meaningful friendship, rolled into this beautiful musical moment.
Just as it hits every mental emotion, then and now, the song erupts into this mind-blowing crunchy jam; the guitars solo through, fading in and out of your ears like the memories I was leaving behind on my little journey. This is my jam.
Out of Gas – Here I am detailing the Lonesome Crowded West and my long solo road trip, and what better than hitting on a song whose title reminds me of my reliance on my car at that time. Shit, I’m still reliant upon a car to this day, but in 2002 in Yellowstone, there was no Internet, so having a car meant the only easy connection one had to the outside world. Luckily, when you’re driving through the middle of nowhere, there never seems to be a way that you run “out of road.”
Long Distance Drunk – Another song that musically doesn’t do too much for me, but definitely played a huge part, in both my initial trip to Yellowstone, and the months that would follow. At that point, I had left Oklahoma, driven through Kansas and was on my way to see my friend Kristin. We were college friends, and she’d just moved out to Denver: the final stop on my way to Wyoming. I’d visited her recently too, but every time I thought of Denver, I thought of her. Admittedly, I was like a teenage boy pining for this girl, without the guts to say anything. So we had dinner, and for the next few months, I’d drink at the Grant Village pub, then make that long distance drunk dial just to hear her voice. Not sure if it was the pining, or just the familiarity, but those long distance calls definitely allowed me to survive.
Shit Luck – This is the final step, both for the album’s rocking, and for my journey. It’s just a furious romp through smashing percussion and funky guitar grooviness, sputtering out of control. When Brock belts out “this building’s totally burning down,” that somehow makes perfect sense thinking back. I’d spent four years mapping out plans, internships, setting goals, only to say fuck it all at the last minute, drop everything and move into a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. I burned the building to the ground, and it was totally going to be on me to build it back up.
Truckers Atlas – An atlas was a handy way to get around in the 90s. Let’s face it, Yahoo Maps wasn’t exactly reliable, so if you were going to hit 6 states in 36 hours, you likely needed a nice collection of maps to get you there. This particular musical map even mentions some of the stops on my own journey, with mention of Colorado and Montana. Still, this song is about journeying; it’s about getting “off Scot-fucking-free.”
It amazes me that all my friends totally loved tracks like this back in the day. A ten minute tune that weaves back and forth, yet almost always staying near a home base. Now, three minute songs seem indulgent. Still, stick the landing on this tune and you get that little weirdo reward in the last minute.
Polar Opposites – Hands down, this is my favorite Modest Mouse tune, ever. This is also the track that sums up a lot of us that lived in Yellowstone in 2002. We came from all over the Earth, all of us looking for something or running from something. I think landing in Mammoth Springs on May 9th, piles of snow all around me, I knew that nothing summed up the last six months better than “Im trying to/drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.” This was one of the songs that played throughout my time at the park, and I even remember a day when this song sort of brought its own enlightenment.
I sat at the bottom of Kepler Cascades, just South of Old Faithful; I was writing and sketching, listening to music from this obscured little rock perch at the base. My friend Landon was milling about in the water and as this song came through my headphones, I very specifically remember this perfect rainbow dancing in the mists of the falls, perfectly outlining Landon in this wash of color. At that moment, and what led me to actually venture into writing this piece, the world just stalled, and things made perfect sense. It was one of those musically transcending moments you don’t get too often.
Bankrupt on Selling – Despite finding perfect moments in Yellowstone, the distance and isolation certainly led you down dangerous paths of depression, even if fleeting. Hearing this song again right now, still tugs at the heart as much as it did then; something in the recording and Brock’s voice just reeks of desperation. Those long-distance drunk dials to girls and friends just to hear a recording of their voice, just for a moment, to get you from one moment to the next; those were the moments that flashed before my eyes as I listen back; those moments when I was holed up in one of the phone cubbies, dialing out to find solace or forgiveness or what have you.”It took a long time/I came clean with myself.”
Styrofoam Boots/It’s All on Ice, Alright – At the end of my time in Yellowstone, there was a metaphorical scroll of the moments and the people, and what song would wrap it up better than the ultimate lesson given by Modest Mouse: “God takes care of himself/and you of you.” As the song fades in and out of nonsensical moments, I’m reminded that the ups and downs of that journey, accompanied by great records like the Lonesome Crowded West allowed me to survive. I took snippets of lyrics, wrote them in little notebooks, or made pockets for them in my memory; I took chances, made new friends, found my footing, so I could journey again. While it may have come out a few years before, it was the record that defined by trip and my stay in Yellowstone that year.
And here we are, about ready to revisit that album in its entirety.